Are Conde Nast Traveler’s Polls Fixed?

Many golfers would choose Pebble Beach for their last "before I die round" anywhere in the world, but according to Conde Nast Traveler, it is not even top three in California. Courtesy: Joann Dost

There is a special place in media hell reserved for the people who run the Reader’s Polls at Conde Nast Traveler, a magazine whose ironic tagline is “Truth in Travel,” despite the fact that its polls could not be bigger lies.

Regular readers will know that I despise these polls, and each one that comes out, be it golf, skiing, cruise ships, is more insulting to the public’s intelligence than the last. Just reading the idiocy of these rankings makes me angry, because as a longtime travel media professional, I know exactly how important these ratings are, how thousands of consumers have spent good money on bad experiences because these polls have told them to. Hotels and guide books proudly fly the flags of these ratings, but “Truth in Travel” or no, I am more convinced than ever that the polls are not just terribly flawed, they are fixed.

The only question that I ask myself is, are they fixed by the editors of CNT, or by the properties that want to badly win high rating? My educated guess, having talked to lots of industry insiders off the record, is probably a bit of both.

The new golf poll in the current issue is no exception: it sent me into a rage with its staggering errors, omissions and stupidity. But we’ll come back to that.

In my last analysis, I tackled the cruise line poll, which neatly divided ships into categories based on size, in terms of number of passengers, leaving absolutely no gray area or fudge factor. The poll went on to award The Disney Magic the number one spot in the “Mega Ship” category. It did not matter t the editors that the ship clearly did not belong in this category based on CNT’s own parameters and detail on the number passengers. Under the explicitly stated terms of the poll, the Magic should have been in the smaller “Large Ship” category.

But here’s the catch: if the Magic had been in the correct category, based on its score, it would not have won. Disney, with its cruise ships, multiple hotels and multiple theme parks, is by far the largest advertiser of any company invoiced in the curies ship poll. Coincidence? For years, hotel and marketing folks have been telling me detailed, first person tales of how advertisers sway the rankings, and this looks to me like proof. Of course, putting the Magic in the wrong category could be an honest, albeit idiotic mistake, but based on my ample experience with the way large magazines and fact checking are run, it is hard to see this obvious error slipping by, especially for the big winner.

There have been many other such factual errors in previous polls, with golf resorts that have no golf courses cleaning up in the ratings, ski resorts that are not at ski mountains winning, etc, true physical impossibilities. My other favorite twisting of reality is how in every golf polls they routinely rank exactly the same course differently in terms of “course design” based on where you are staying. The recurring examples are the courses of the Pebble Beach resort, which annually get different quality ratings depending which hotel you sleep at, even though the course ratings are totally distinct from the lodging experience. This year, out of 125 “wining” resorts, there are no fewer than eight examples of different “course design” rankings for the exact same courses.

Without a doubt, Scotland's 54-hole Gleneagles is one of the world's greatest golf resorts - unless you are Conde Nast Traveler which favors unknown single course Mexican resorts.

Most of flaws are subjective, with picks that do not deserve to be anywhere near the top winning and obvious “bests” being ignored. CNT would surely say “well that’s how readers voted,” but if Bon Appétit or Food & Wine did a reader poll of the world’s best restaurant and McDonalds won, it would surely give them pause, which is exactly the way the golf and ski polls come out from CNT, with properties that should not even be in the running winning – like “golf resorts” without golf courses.

These crazy results suggest a fix at the contestant level, and the other day, someone in the know explained to me just how this works. The ballots used to be paper, but today they are “randomly” emailed to subscribers. There is nothing to stop the subscriber from non-randomly forwarding the poll to other voters. A tech savvy hotel might enlist a thousand dupes to fill out the poll in their favor. This might explain why a bevy of non-deserving Mexican resorts, many with ownership or marketing in the US, handily beat out the very best greats of Scotland and Ireland, resorts which any golfer with half a brain would choose first. Is the “problem” with golf in St. Andrews that it is not good, or is the problem that their department of online poll cheating is not good?  Such voting patterns might help explain how the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa in Avon, CO improbably won for both Best US Ski Resort in last winter’s poll, and Best Western US Golf Resort in this one.

I don’t mean to pick on the Westin, which is a very nice property, and has a great restaurant and which I can honestly recommend as a vacation destination. But there is absolutely no chance in hell that it is the best Ski Resort hotel in the country (it barely qualifies as a ski resort, especially against tons of actual ski-in/ski-out properties from Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, St. Regis and yes, even Westin). Likewise, there is not the slightest chance it is the best golf resort in the Western US. It qualifies as a golf resort by the thinnest of margins, only because it has an exclusive partnership with the not so nearby Red Sky Ranch, an excellent private club. Yes there are other public courses you can play in the area, but if being able to drive to a public course and play makes something a golf resort, than every hotel in the country, from mid-town Manhattan to O’Hare airport is a golf resort. To make matters worse, several much more opulent resorts, including the Four Seasons Vail and the Arabelle have that same Red Sky Ranch relationship, and neither made the list. The Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch is the only hotel with the same Red Sky access that made the list, yet in another absolute impossibility, suspending the laws of science, the “Course Design” rating for the Ritz was 92.1, while the Westin got a perfect 100, for exactly the same courses (which are located at neither hotel).

Meanwhile, Bandon Dunes in Oregon, which has THE top ranked public course in the entire country by the industry’s legit golf course rankings, plus two of the top five, and three of the top ten, a level of quality unequalled by any golf resort in the history of the world, and simply could not realistically lose this category (Western US excludes California, and thus Pebble Beach, along with Arizona and Hawaii), came in tenth.

Savvy golfers from around the globe plan epic pilgrimages to Bandon Dues for a once in lifetime golf vacation. How many wake up and say, “Man, I’ve got to play the Westin Avon before I die.”

The constant impossibilities in these rankings, the true unarguable errors, not to mention the glaring idiocy of the results, leads me to only one conclusion: the fix must be in.

To see my past analysis of Conde Nast Traveler’s badly flawed but very high-profile polls, click here, here, here, or here

NEXT: I look at the unbelievably stupid 2011 Golf Poll Ranking Results!

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